Talisha Ramsaroop winner of Pam McConnell award standing in front of Toronto skyline

Photography  By John Hyrniuk

Talisha Ramsaroop sets high expectations for Jane and Finch kids

How one woman is creating opportunities for students in a neighbourhood that’s close to her heart

Talisha Ramsaroop is passionate about Jane and Finch, the neighbourhood where she grew up. The 25-year-old devotes her professional and free time to giving back to the community there, especially its young people. As a Jane-and-Finch community advocate, she was one of two young women awarded the first-ever Pam McConnell leadership award by the City of Toronto in 2018.

In her full-time gig as the community projects coordinator for York University, Ramsaroop aims to recruit more high-school students from the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. “I’m a liaison between the university and the community,” she says. “I’m in the schools a lot, talking to students about OSAP, scholarships and helping them plan for post-secondary school.”

It’s a role that’s close to her heart. As a high school student, she took part in the Advanced Credit Experience (ACE) Program, a semester of classes at York designed to give high-school students a look at what life would be like in university.

The program was a defining moment in Ramsaroop’s youth. “Before that, university wasn’t on my radar—I was just trying to get through school, and I didn’t have any expectations for myself,” she says. “A teacher at ACE walked me through everything that had to do with doing well in school and applying for university. He was like, ‘you’re going to pass this course, you’re going to go to university—you’ve got this.’ It triggered something in me.”

Animated gif of Talisha Ramsaroop winner of Pam McConnell award

As a sociology student at York, Ramsaroop recognized that her experience growing up in what was known as one of Toronto’s toughest neighbourhoods gave her a unique perspective. This came into sharp focus when she worked on an extracurricular assignment called The Act Project, where students analyzed raw data sets on how safe students felt at their high schools. “I looked at the data for Jane and Finch and analyzed it from another angle, based on my own lived experience,” Ramsaroop says.

When she presented her analysis to an audience made up of both professors and peers, her perspective opened their eyes. Ramsaroop’s experience was new to them—she loved living at Jane and Finch, and she didn’t feel unsafe as a high-school student. It was then she realized she could be a voice for the youth of her home neighbourhood.

Living at Jane and Finch can often carry stigma. Reports of gang activity, crime and the high-profile murder of high-school student Jordan Manners in 2007 have contributed to the perception that some of the neighbourhood’s youth are underachieving and dangerous. It’s the most detrimental thing facing young people in the community, Ramsaroop says. She describes it in her 2015 TedxYork talk as the “violence of low expectations.”

“I’ve talked a lot about the need for us to increase our expectations of young people in the neighbourhood,” Ramsaroop says. “And a big part of that is encouraging post-secondary school, whether it’s university or college. We need to expand their opportunities, so they see themselves as potential undergrad, masters and PhD students.”

Schools in priority neighbourhoods like Jane and Finch, Flemingdon Park and Rexdale are failing students, Ramsaroop says. “If you compare them to schools in Rosedale, there’s a really big difference in infrastructure,” she explains. “A lot of the teachers aren’t from the community, so all they know is what they hear in the news—a very deficit-based story.”

She believes that the biggest problem with our current education system is its lack of representation of people with experience growing up in these communities. “If I represented Jane and Finch and another person represented Flemingdon, we could do so many incredible, impactful things in our city. I know what it’s like to go to a school with little to no funding, and I know the impact that has on my learning. I’m obviously going to make choices when it comes to education that are reflective of that.”

Eventually, Ramsaroop wants to run for municipal council; she wants to be the one holding the power to make decisions that will benefit her community. She’s already part of Women Win TO, which brings together women of diverse backgrounds who want to learn about the fundamentals of running for office.

Ramsaroop already sees the power of high expectations manifesting in her young niece, who is growing up in Jane and Finch, too. “I started telling her that she was going to be the prime minister,” she says. “And now, she totally wants to become the prime minister—there’s no question. She doesn’t even second-guess it, even though she’s a woman of colour. Just allowing young people to consider these possibilities is incredibly powerful.”